With the US Presidential elections starting to take shape, the general issues of religion and politics, and church and state, once again come to the fore. But as is often the case, there tends to be much confused thinking about all this – and I refer here to Christian thinking.
There seems to be a lot of confusion and uncertainty as to the role of government, the place of politics, and the function of civil authority. So let me here offer five brief and general remarks about what the biblical data teaches. The first thing to note is that government is God’s idea.
But before going any further, let me state that it is important to keep in mind the difference between government and the state. The state, or civil government, is just one form of government, or rulership. God of course is the governor of the universe. But he delegates authority in various ways. Self-government is the most important form of government, but in a fallen world this must be supplemented.
Thus God has instituted the family wherein parents govern or rule their children; the church, where church leaders lead or govern the flock; and the state, where civil leaders govern the citizenry. All these are God-given forms of government, and all are needed to promote order and administer justice in a fallen world.
As Gary DeMar has written, “the state, which is best described as civil government, has been given authority to maintain order in society, to punish the evildoer, and to promote the good (Genesis 9:5-6; Romans 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-14). Politics, then, is not a necessary evil; it’s necessary because of evil (Genesis 4:4-15, 23-24; 9:5-7).”
Thus anarchy, and some extreme forms of libertarianism, can never be an option for the biblical Christian. Government is God’s idea, and to balk at government is to balk at God. Of course this must be teased out as well. For example, there are times when to obey the state means to disobey God. At that point the believer must go with God. But that I discuss elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/
Second, it is also true that government is not to take the place of God, as is so often the case with the secular left, and their emphasis on big government and coercive utopianism. Statism and an ever-expanding welfare state are not part of the biblical pattern. But that too I have discussed elsewhere, so I will not repeat myself here.
Third, the state must be kept in check – it must be limited. It is not absolute, and the Bible makes it clear that all civil government is to be restricted and not overstep its God-given boundaries. A classic Old Testament passage on this is Deuteronomy 17.
The context is Deut 16-18 which offers us an overview of four offices of authority: judge, king, priest, prophet. Simply having these various authority structures shows us the importance of the diffusion of power. Thus from early on in biblical history we see a clear separation or division of powers at work in ancient Israel.
As Chris Wright comments, “The clear distinction and separation of the different kinds of authority can be seen as a significant precursor of some of the principles of democratic government, especially the separation of powers. No single person could hold all four offices. None of the authorities is given supreme authority over the others. Certainly the king … does not appoint the others. . . . And the king, though the chief executive in the political sphere, has very explicit limitations set on his power.”
This stands in marked contrast to the absolute power other monarchs ordinarily enjoyed in the Ancient Near East. Only in Ancient Israel was there such a radical diminution of powers, with the constant reminder that Yahweh alone was the ultimate supreme authority.
Thus thinking of ancient Israel as simply a theocracy is rather misleading. Sure, Yahweh was Israel’s king, as he ultimately is everyone’s, and Israel had a special covenant relationship with God. But Yahweh worked through delegated authority. He instituted civil government and made clear it was to be a limited, restricted and diffused power structure. It was an early version of constitutional government.
But let me get back to the king himself. The section on kingship (17:14-20) is remarkable for a number of reasons in the way it puts checks and balances on the power of the king. As McConville comments, “A king in the ancient world was typically the chief executive in all departments of the life of a nation; here, the appointment of the king is not an absolute requirement, but subject to the demand of the people (17:14). It is the limitations placed on the king (17:16-20) that makes the laws on the administration of Israel so radical.”
What a stark contrast this picture of the king in Deuteronomy offers compared to other rulers in the ANE. And these principles of limited government continue throughout the Bible. As to the New Testament, let me just mention one passage. Jesus says two important things about government: it is of God, but it is limited in its jurisdiction.
This is made clear in Matt. 22:21 where Jesus says we are to respect and give honour both to God and to Caesar. Both authorities are to be obeyed, in their proper place. God of course is always the ultimate authority, but he has delegated authority to civil governments, something which we are to recognise and respect.
Fourth, it is clear that governments cannot save anyone, or produce innate righteousness. But that is not the purpose or function of civil government. Civil government exists to keep a check on evil, to maintain justice, and to prevent societies from degenerating into moral anarchy.
It was never intended to be a medium of evangelism or salvation. That is the job of the church. Thus governments cannot save or make a person righteous from the inside out. Instead it keeps evil in place, which in a fallen world is a tremendous social good. But it is the gospel which transforms individual hearts and lives.
Fifth, it must be noted that there is also a dark side, indeed a demonic side, to government. While the state has a place in God’s order, and while government is of divine origin, like everything in a fallen world, the state can become a tool of the enemy.
The dark side of the state is found especially in the apocalyptic literature, such as in Daniel and Revelation. One recalls the despotic Babylonian kings such as Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, found in the Book of Daniel. But his vision of the four beasts (world empires) in ch. 7 makes it clear that earthly dominion and power will always come to an end, and the true ruler will ultimately triumph.
The book of Revelation picks up on these themes and refers to the wicked evil worldly system as Babylon in quite negative terms. This false religious, political, economic and cultural system is completely opposed to God and his people, and it will meet the same fate as seen by Daniel.
Just as the Israelites had to live under ungodly Babylonian rule in Daniel’s day, so too believers today live under the wicked world systems called “Babylon the Great”. This evil world system will finally be destroyed (Rev. 18), and the rejoicing because of its downfall will be great (Rev 19).
Thus for the most part it can be seen that government is a biblical concept which believers need not shy away from or be dismissive of. In Part Two of this article I will look in some detail at an objection sometimes raised against what has just been said here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-two/